Hearing loss, also known as hearing impairment, is defined as a partial or total inability to hear. It can affect one ear (unilateral) or both (bilateral) and be permanent or temporary. This condition is considered a public health epidemic in Americans, affecting more than 48 million people nationwide and approximately 477 million around the world.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Diseases (NIDCD),
- Out of every 1,000 children born in the U.S., 2 or 3 are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears
- One in eight U.S. residents over the age of 12 has hearing loss in both ears
- About 15 percent of U.S. residents over the age of 18 reported some trouble hearing
- Of those ages 20-69 who reported exposure to very loud noises for 5 years or more, approximately 18 percent have speech-frequency hearing loss in both ears. Of this age group, men are more likely to experience it than women.
There are many reasons hearing loss can occur, though age is the most common. In fact, 91 percent of adults experience hearing loss are over the age of 50, with one out of every three being 65 to 74, and approximately half of the population aged 75 and up reporting some decline in hearing. It can also be brought on by noise exposure, genetic factors, injury, ototoxic medications (medicine induced) and bacterial or viral infections.
Hearing loss can take on many forms but is primarily classified by the severity of the loss. It’s measured based on two factors. The volume, or how loud it is before it registers with you is called decibels (dB). Depending on the decibels you’re exposed to, this can cause hearing loss immediately or slowly, over a period of time. The longer you expose yourself to loud noises, the quicker you may develop hearing loss. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), any noises over 120 dB can cause instant damage to your ears.
- Breathing: 10 dB
- Normal conversation: 40-60 dB
- Lawnmower: 90 dB (extended exposure causes noise-induced hearing loss)
- Rock concert: 120 dB (noise-induced hearing loss)
- Gunshot: 140 dB (threshold of pain/noise-induced hearing loss)
It’s also measured by the frequencies you have difficulty hearing, or hertz (Hz). Voices of young kids and women can offer more difficulty for those with high-frequency hearing loss, as well as sounds that include f, h, and s. Low-frequency hearing loss can affect a person’s ability to hear low, deep sounds and lead to trouble hearing in large groups or noisy environments.
Audiologists and hearing health professionals run a series of tests that measure Hz in a range from 250 Hz to 8000 Hz which helps to determine how well you can pick up the most important frequencies used in communication. Testing for decibels and hertz will tell them what degree of hearing loss you have in each ear.
These two tests are combined and result in an audiogram which is a graph that shows doctors the softest sounds you are able to hear, at different pitches or frequencies. This can allow them to determine the degree, or severity of hearing loss one suffers from.
Hearing loss is broken down into degrees. Sometimes hearing loss borders between two categories, ending up with a combination of the two. They’re termed as dB HL which describes one’s hearing loss in decibels.
- Normal – negative 10 to 15 dB
- Slight – 16 to 25 dB
- Mild – 26 to 40 dB
- Moderate – 41 to 55 dB
- Moderately severe – 56 to 70 dB
- Severe – 71 to 90 dB
- Profound – 91+ dB
Slight hearing loss is when one can’t hear sounds such as someone whispering or the rustle of leaves, which are around 15 to 20 decibels. Hearing loss at this level can cause difficulty listening to speech. Though it’s less than the normal levels considered in adult hearing loss, children testing in this area are often prescribed hearing aids, as speech and language development is critical at that age.
Mild hearing loss causes difficulty in figuring out some words when surrounded by background noise. It’s also difficult to hear young children and those who speak softly. Many can’t quite catch consonant sounds but are able to hear vowels in speech. You may begin by asking the speaker to talk louder or repeat themselves.
Moderate hearing loss makes vowel sounds more difficult to pick up. Comprehension becomes harder with this degree of loss, though people often state that they can hear. Many can be successfully treated through the use of hearing aids.
Moderately severe is the point where hearing aids become mandatory. Speakers become inaudible, and even with the increase in amplification hearing aids will provide, comprehension can become an arduous task.
Severe hearing loss at this level requires cochlear implants or hearing aids.
Profound hearing loss can make even extremely loud and piercing noises inaudible, such as emergency sirens, traffic, and airplanes. At this point, it can hazardous not to seek treatment.
The long-term effects of hearing loss can have serious health consequences, going so far as to affect cognitive abilities. With the inability to hear correctly, people can suffer greatly from stress and anxiety, depression and fear, fatigue or insomnia, and even cognitive decline and dementia.
Social isolation may occur when one is no longer able to take part in conversations, irritation may stem from the feeling that others are mumbling or deliberately keeping information from them. Relationships can suffer, both at work and at home.
If you’re experiencing symptoms, you should seek treatment from a qualified hearing health professional at the first signs of hearing loss. They will administer a few simple and painless tests and then talk over your options. By getting swift treatment, you can help yourself or someone you love to continue to enjoy a quality life.